The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert Two Women on a Sofa - Le Tose c.1903-4

Sickert’s models, the prostitutes Carolina dell’Acqua and La Giuseppina, sit closely together on an Empire style sofa in his Venice studio. The painting’s planar composition focuses the viewer’s attention on the pair: wearing brightly coloured skirts, their facial expressions difficult to read. ‘Le Tose’ is Venetian slang for ‘the girls’, a casual expression supported by Sickert’s intimate picture.
Walter Richard Sickert 1860–1942
Two Women on a Sofa – Le Tose
c.1903–4
Oil paint on canvas
457 x 533 mm
Inscribed by the artist ‘Sickert – Venezia –’ bottom left
Bequeathed by Sir Hugh Walpole 1941
N05296

Entry

Walter Richard Sickert 'A Marengo' c.1903-4
Fig.1
Walter Richard Sickert
A Marengo c.1903–4
Tate N03621
© Tate
Walter Sickert painted this work during his visit to Venice in 1903–4; the title ‘Le Tose’ is Venetian slang for ‘the girls’. As in A Marengo (Tate N03621, fig.1), the sitters are the prostitutes Carolina dell’Acqua and La Giuseppina. They sit on the Empire style sofa that Sickert had in his painting room on the top floor of 940 Calle dei Frati. The constrained, planar composition forces attention onto the figures, although their faces are blurred and impossible to read, creating a sense of ambiguity. We can only look to the pose and set of their bodies to read meaning – they are evidently looking back at the painter, the figure on the left looking bored as she rests her head on her hand, the two women obviously on familiar terms as they sit together closely. The figure on the right is relaxed, her feet tucked up under her.
As the art historian David Peters Corbett has noted, there are affinities with Edgar Degas’s pictures of resting prostitutes, such as Waiting c.1876–7 (Musée Picasso, Paris).1 However, whereas in pictures by Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec there is no question of the women’s occupation or the setting as a brothel, Sickert’s are less explicit,2 inviting the viewer to speculate on the significance of the scene. While this level of innocent reading is possible with Le Tose, it is more difficult to sustain in other pictures in the series, especially those such as Conversations 1903–4 (private collection)3 or Giuseppina and the Model 1903–4 (private collection),4 which combine a clothed figure with a naked one on a bed. Le Tose is the only picture in the series which shows the two women sitting together on a sofa.
In an account to his friend Jacques-Émile Blanche, Sickert stated that in this series of works he painted the figures directly, getting the models to hold their pose for an hour (see Tate N03621). However, he evidently also relied on drawings, as there is an upright pen and ink sketch of Le Tose’s left-hand figure inscribed ‘Sickert – Venezia’, which belonged to the Mayor Gallery in 1958.5 The art historian Wendy Baron also notes of Le Tose that ‘A spurious copy of this painting, known as The Two Sisters, has been in circulation’.6
By the time Sickert arrived in Venice, pictures of ‘la Serenissima’ were a popular and profitable component of the annual Royal Academy exhibition and the Paris Salon. Paintings of the city had, of course, been bought intermittently by British collectors since the time of Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, but a renewed enthusiasm peaked in the 1880s and 1890s. At this time large numbers of artists from many countries went to work in Venice to portray its picturesque canals and, most commonly, sentimental genre scenes of the inhabitants. The leading continental exponents of this type of picture were two Austrian painters, Cecil van Haanen (1844–1914) and Eugene von Blaas (1843–1932), whose style and choice of subject exerted a strong influence on the work of British painters such as Henry Woods (1846–1921). By 1886 the Art Journal was able to identify a ‘modern Venetian school’ whose foremost members were Woods, Luke Fildes (1844–1927) and William Logsdail (1859–1944), noting that:
Home-staying Englishmen, if they were years ago contented with such indistinct impressions of Venice as they received from Turner’s pictures or the stanzas in ‘Childe Harold’, are now familiar with another Venice, quite as poetic, quite as suggestive of romance, the Venice of today. Following the best of modern Art, which makes the real its aim and end, this clever Venetian school has carried us beyond Venice the romantic to Venice the actual, and has created our present interest in the delightful comedy of her streets and people ... yet they are not content merely to reproduce the noble beauty of her architecture or the lustrous hues of her landscape. They use these, yes; but as a background against which to set some scene of human interest, trivial at times, but always true.7
This popularity in London of anecdotal genre scenes from Venetian life adds an interesting background to Sickert’s decision to paint series of figures in interiors on his 1903–4 visit. Another context in which to see them, and which the genre scenes also engage with, is the interest in physical type, and specifically the different attributes of Venetian women. Various books appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century which adopted an ethnographic approach to the women of Venice. As the art historian Alastair Grieve has noted, there was interest in the possibility that the physical type which had once fascinated Titian was still to be found in the city.8 Published in London in 1894, the German critic Henry Perl’s book Venezia records and comments extensively on different female types, even down to their way of walking. Perl, who was in fact a woman writing under a male alias, drew comparison between ‘the rosy-fleshed Venus-like form rendered so familiar to us in the paintings of Giorgione and Titian’ with ‘the slender yet muscular brunette, who has hitherto been too much neglected’.9
A further context in which to view Sickert’s figure pictures is the widely held contemporary conviction that Venice was a place of moral degradation. As Grieve has noted, one of the leitmotifs of John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (1851–3) was his belief that the fall of Venice’s power as a city state was an inevitable effect of the moral decay of its populace.10 In this scheme, the physical crumbling of Venice’s architectural heritage mirrored or expressed the moral collapse of the people.
The first recorded owner of Le Tose was Hugh Walpole (1884–1941), the writer of popular historical novels. He collected nineteenth- and twentieth-century art widely, and owned a number of Sickerts. In 1928 he wrote a preface for the catalogue of Sickert’s exhibition at the Savile Gallery, and its director R.E.A. Wilson commissioned Sickert to paint his portrait (1928, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge).11 Giving an indication of the catholic nature of his collecting taste, among the works he bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in 1941 were Max Beerbohm’s Rossetti series (A01038–A01060), Philip Wilson Steer’s Nutting (N05290) and Girl in a Blue Dress (N05295), William Blake’s The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (N05300), James Tissot’s Portsmouth Dockyard (N05302), Auguste Renoir’s Head of a Girl (N05293), and Montagne Sainte Victoire by Paul Cézanne (N05303).

Robert Upstone
May 2009

Notes

1
Reproduced in David Peters Corbett, Walter Sickert, London 2001, pl.11.
2
See ibid., p.20.
3
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.217 and Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (41).
4
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.217.1.
5
See Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, p.634.
6
Baron 2006, no.217.
7
Art Journal, 1886, p.97.
8
Alastair Grieve, Whistler’s Venice, New Haven and London 2000, p.186.
9
Henry Perl, Venezia, London 1894, p.77; quoted in Grieve 2000, p.186.
10
Grieve 2000, pp.185–6.
11
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.689.

How to cite

Robert Upstone, ‘Two Women on a Sofa – Le Tose c.1903–4 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/camden-town-group/walter-richard-sickert-two-women-on-a-sofa-le-tose-r1139012, accessed 24 April 2019.